Wasson: A Day in Cane


The bus comes to the batey at six a.m. It’s an old yellow school bus, now full of men who ride back and forth between the growing sugar cane and the cacophony of their makeshift shanties and derelict company housing. Sometimes they are of school age but no one is learning anything except how to cut cane – and you’re an expert in that after two days. Some of the cutters are quite young – and all are strong – but it’s hard and you can’t do it forever. Injury or exhaustion will find you eventually.

The fields are about thirty minutes away but it’s often dark in the morning and then again twelve hours later in the night – so you don’t see the rest of the bateyes stretched along the road, the unfiltered water trenches which do double duty for sewage and cleaning in the flickering light of undependable electricity. The only other vehicles are the old buses which take women into town to look for work as domestic help or the fast moving, highly polished SUVs of the sugar company supervisors.

The cane is ready to be cut every day of the week during the season; a clean swipe at the bottom to set it free and then a smooth movement across the top to remove the leafy ends. Some mornings the fires needed to dry the cane out are still burning around the cutters – smoke clouding around the men and small red flames licking in the stalks.

By the end of the day piles of cane marked by sticks indicating each man’s number are laid out for loading onto the ancient trains which run back and forth to the mill. In a good, twelve hour day a strong man can cut ten piles – maybe three tons of cane. For this he will receive approximately $7.50.

Wasson is one of those young men. He is twenty-one, tall, strong and handsome, and tells his story in a soft voice belying years of pain. He was born in Haiti but when his parents died his brothers and sisters needed someone to provide for them. Unable to find a job in Haiti, where unemployment is currently at 70%, he followed the path of many before him and came over the border to the Dominican Republic and found a sugar plantation in Barahona. This journey is a complicated one – because it serves the purposes of many companies for the legality of working in the Dominican Republic to be unclear. A labor agent can promise you a job but not provide a contract – and without a contract you have no right to be in the country. But everyone says that Haitians work incredibly hard – so no one wants the flow of labor to stop.

With an unpredictable salary of less than eight dollars a day it’s impossible for Wasson to do much more than feed himself and buy clean drinking water, which isn’t provided. His clothes are worn and dirty and his feet are covered with old sandals – though he uses a sharp machete which could remove a limb in a moment’s slip. There is no field hospital and often the workers are far from someone with a radio should an accident happen.

As difficult as the situation in the fields is, Wasson is trapped. Friends who stay in Haiti have even fewer options – staying in a village means almost no employment. Heading into Port au Prince, the capital, to live in the slums and perhaps work on roads for the government might provide only $1.75 per day – and in a city where a can of rice is .70 cents this doesn’t go far. Others crossing the border have gone to construction jobs in Santo Domingo to work on fast rising residential towers or tourist hotels on the beautiful beaches, but these jobs often end with immigration buses being called before final payments are made to illegal workers – and the living conditions in the urban slums are even worse than in the fields.

There are bright spots – CEDAIL’s win of a class action suit for Haitian sugar cane workers was a major milestone and the organizing of construction workers has a strong momentum. Additionally, a Barahona mining cooperative has recently, after a long struggle, was able to purchase a chalk mine. Though the cost of equipment and lack of investment capital make turning a profit a serious challenge, their example is one that may be followed.

Ultimately, without the resolution to the working conditions and a response to the migratory status of Haitian workers and their families, neither the Dominican Republic nor Haiti can develop the beauty and richness of their land into sustainable economic societies – and Wasson can neither stay nor go home – creating an existence in limbo, marked only by endless work.

Haitian Sugar Cane Workers in the Dominican Republic


Sugar is traded on one of the most heavily distorted markets in the world. These distortions pay huge dividends to plantation owners while many workers subsist on starvation wages. The US, the European Union, and several other countries play major roles in this process by artificially inflating their domestic sugar prices with quotas, tariffs, and subsidies for domestic producers. In the US, for example, this system encourages American sugar firms to overproduce and unload the excess on the world market. As a result, the price of sugar in the US has traditionally held at about twice the price of the world market—the American price is inflated, and the world’s deflated. The US is hardly alone here; the European Union has long upheld similar price supports. A mere 20 percent of sugar is traded freely worldwide.

This system has not come about by accident. Rather, the owners of sugar companies—and their political sponsors—have carefully crafted it to protect and drive up their profits. Plantation owners like the Fanjul family, who own major sugar operations in the US and the Dominican Republic, benefit on both ends. They earn tens of millions annually from the inflated price for their Florida-grown sugar, and even more from a guaranteed import quota for their Dominican products. The Dominican preferences alone may be worth as much as $40 million a year to the Fanjuls. Unsurprisingly, the family contributed some $650,000 to American political campaigns in 2008.